Why is Mommy Different?: Parenting and Disability (Yes, it can Happen!)

I’ve wanted to be a parent for a very long time. I’m not married yet, ergo, no kids, but I’m holding out tremendous hope for a family. The only problem with that, according to society, is my cerebral palsy. No matter how mild it is, CP would make some individuals believe I should never be a mother. These people would worry that growing up with a disabled mom would, among other things, put my kids at developmental, mental, emotional, and physical risk, or at risk for “parentification,” a word used to describe children who are forced to take on parent-like roles and responsibilities sooner than is appropriate.

To be honest, I used to buy this theory. Again, the mildness of my CP didn’t figure in. I just naturally figured, because of others’ attitudes, that subjecting my child to a disability would be a terrible, even abusive, move. I pictured my kids coming home crying or angry–with me–because someone at school said bad things about Mommy. I pictured myself not being able to make decent meals for them, or get them dressed because of buttons and hooks on their clothes. I pictured having to go to court to fight to keep my kids with me–and losing.

Unfortunately, according to a lot of people without disabilities, such pictures are very realistic. They look at people with any disability, but especially severe physical or cognitive disabilities, and wonder what we’re thinking to even entertain the idea of letting “those people” raise kids. They suggest sterilization, especially for those with cognitive and mental disabilities. An article I recently read stated that many parents with disabilities find their skills judged by a harsher, stricter standard than parents without disabilities. And, as with many constructs of Disability World, it might seem safer, even more humane, to discourage adults with disabilities from parenthood. As in, “They’re kids themselves; how can they raise a kid?”

Again, I used to buy that. Not so much for myself, but definitely for people with more severe disabilities. I naively thought that pairing an adult, or a married couple, who had, say, Down’s Syndrome, autism, severe physical disabilities, and so forth with a helpless little baby would be a disaster. But here’s the truth:

According to the Parents with Disabilities Network of the United Kingdom, 8 million people worldwide who have disabilities are now raising children, and–hallelujah–their numbers keep growing.

Services for parents with disabilities are cropping up around the globe. I’d like to give a personal shout-out to the U.K., who seem to have done a fantastic job with this. Their Disability Discrimination Act (DDA, similar to America’s ADA), gives parents with disabilities certain rights that Americans may not have thought to put into law yet (in the twenty-first century!) These rights include:

  • The right to accessible information (such as communicating with a parent who is deaf via sign language or pencil and paper, or simplifying technical explanations for people with intellectual disabilities). Actually, I’m sure most of us would like that tech-speak simplified, period.
  • The right to request–and then have–parenting classes and other such meetings held in accessible locations
  • The right to have your adoption application “welcomed” if you wish to adopt a child, as long as you are over 21 years old and can provide a stable home (notice, disability is NOT mentioned. Compare this to several nations abroad where prospective adoptive parents with disabilities are automatically disqualified).
  • The right to marry and have a family (U.K. says “found a family,”) and receive appropriate support before and after the birth of children.
  • The right to a private family life, in which the state cannot and will not interfere unless children are endangered, abused, neglected, or abandoned (the only reasons government would interfere in terms of parents WITHOUT disabilities).

So, to the U.K.: This Yank lady thinks you guys rock. As for the U.S., we have support groups for parents with disabilities, as well as similar laws on the books. But our parents–and perhaps some of those in the U.K., definitely those in other nations–with disabilities are still in danger. Did you know that in the U.S., 40-60% of children born to families headed by one parent or the other with a disability were placed in “alternative care?” In other words, taken from their parents, temporarily or permanently, just because the parent had a disability? And did you also know that 15% of parents with disabilities report experiencing efforts to have their children taken from them?

Tsk, tsk, tsk. Or, less politely: What in the heck????!!!!!????

It comes down to this: We go out of our way to make sure children with disabilities have the supports they need to have a “free, appropriate, public education” as defined by IDEA, and most of us would go out of our way to see those children live fulfilling, real lives. So why doesn’t that carry over to parenthood? If we have to use modifications to make parenthood a good experience for everyone involved, so what? If we have to simplify something, so what? I remind you, when things are simplified or modified for other reasons than being “special for the handicapped,” the general public loves it.

But Chick, you say, what if your children did have problems at school because of your disability? What if your family was “the weirdos?” What if your kids ended up in therapy, telling some shrink your CP ruined their lives?

Okay, let’s deal with that. I’d like to share a funny slogan I saw awhile back: “Nice job on the child-rearing. Let me know how the therapy goes.” Disability is not mentioned in that slogan. What’s my point? No parent, disability or none, is perfect. We’re all going to mess up. And yes, despite our best intentions, some of our kids will need a third party to talk to–who may be a counselor. Of course, we don’t want it to come to that, but it could happen.

In terms of other issues: again, I’m not a parent. But when I become one, I am determined to be the best mom possible to my kids. And that means, explaining to them, in ways they understand, what makes Mommy “different”–but also focusing on what makes her the same. Things like:

“Yes, I have cerebral palsy, and that means my muscles get garbled messages when the messages travel from my brain. So maybe I can’t play some games with you, and maybe my crafts don’t look ‘right.’ But…”

  • I can still bake you cookies and cupckaes for school
  • I can still help with your homework
  • I can still listen when you have a problem, or kiss it and make it better when you scrape your knee
  • I can still play other games with you, and find ways to enjoy all the things you likeI can still read you a story (with all the voices) or sing to you, and tuck you in at night
  • I can still hug you and kiss you
  • I can still love you

And isn’t that what being a parent is, anyway? Right. So, if the neighbors think we’re weird?

Well, don’t look at me. They’re the ones barbecuing fish at midnight or putting hideous decorations on their lawns–and nobody tries to take their kids away for that.


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